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Church of Rome at the Bar of History Paperback – November 1, 1997
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Along with this book, I recommend Reasoning From the Scriptures With Catholics for a biblical critique, and The Roman Catholic Controversy for a more general critique.
To those very close to a Catholic: this book is immensely helpful in deciding what to believe. You are bomabarded constantly with Catholic claims to "catholicity"; that is, that Christ instituted only one church (naturally, the RCC) and that all Christians everywhere and for all time have believed exactly what the RCC says. Along the same lines, Reformation beliefs are johnny-come-lately's and that Protestants should return to the "real" church. This is the most difficult argument of Catholics to wrestle with, because Bible verses can be interpreted differently as can fruits of the Spirit but history is a fact.
Well, Webster blows the "catholic" argument out of the water. He has an easy job, because he doesn't have to show that Church Fathers would have been Protestant, merely that some beliefs of each father go against modern Catholicism. By quoting historical documents (which are extensively referenced), he shows that the early Church contained a mix of "Catholic" and "Protestant" beliefs (at best) or were entirely opposed to an idea like a papacy at the beginning. He admits that the doctrine of the Eucharist is the best supported historically, but even so, some authoritative writers explicitly supported views more like Calvin's on the topic.
I would say, then, that Webster succeeds in using his book to show that Reformation beliefs had support in the early Church and that the RCC is unjustified in dismissing Protestant beliefs as going against history, and that even some of its own beliefs contradict the statements of those it uses for support. Even if it does not convince, for whatever reason, a single Catholic, I am convinced that I should not be swayed by any claims of the RCC to sole ownership of history.
If one spends time in the world of Roman Catholic apologetics, it's common to hear quotes from this early church father or that one, seemingly in support of currently-understood Catholic doctrine. This is used to suggest that true believers have always believed as Rome does and it is modern protestants who have introduced new and unbiblical doctrines.
Webster's approach is brilliant. He doesn't try to prove that ALL early Christians believed this way or that way- he doesn't need to! What he does is ask if various Catholic doctrines find support in a majority or church fathers since the beginning. And the answer to that question is "no." His point is that we see many of the same variation in belief among early Christians as we see in the Reformation and since- but no one was claiming one group had it all figured out and requiring ALL believers to accept their teaching "or else" until quite late in church history.
In other words, if such esteemed church fathers as Augustine, Jerome, Athanasius and Origen did not agree on everything but are not all condemned as heretics (indeed some are canonized "saints"), how can we accept church declarations in the past several centuries which say the church has always been unified in doctrine and if you disagree you are doomed?
I have read a lot of books from "both sides" of the Catholic-Protestant debate and I was impressed by the honest, accurate approach of this book. The author quotes church documents often and accurately, so he is not (as some might accuse) basing his arguments on a "straw man" of his own creation. He goes to the horse's mouth, as it were.
I'm surprised this work isn't more well-known. If you are curious or struggling with these topics, you owe it to yourself to get this well-written book.